The spit of sand that buffers the North Carolina coast from the worst the Atlantic Ocean can toss at it carries an array of contentious issues that seemingly have no easy answers. Foremost among the issues at Cape Hatteras National Seashore these days is the use of off-road vehicles to negotiate beaches that are either far from parking lots or which are just far enough from those lots to make it difficult to carry all your gear for a weekend fishing trip.
Cape Hatteras, authorized as America's first national seashore in 1937 but not actually established until 1953, is a beach lover's jewel. The heart of North Carolina's Outer Banks, the cape offers some of the best beaches in the country, is renowned for its surf fishing, has some of the East Coast's best waves for surfing, and has a decided tinge of wildness that is a welcome respite from the Mid-Atlantic's metropolitan areas.
Off-road vehicles long have been allowed on the national seashore. Unfortunately, the seashore hasn't had a formal off-road management plan in place, and that's why discussions centered on Cape Hatteras often grow heated.
The hot button is the fact that the cape's beaches and dunes attract wildlife: of late much has been made of the nesting shorebirds and sea turtles and whether off-road vehicles are impacting them. The divisions over that question are well-defined. Perhaps no topic other than guns in the parks illicits as many comments to the Traveler as ORVs and Cape Hatteras.
Are ORVs out of control, as the lower photo used by the Southern Environmental Law Center might suggest, or does the top photo provided by A. Pitt better capture ORV use on the cape?
Mr. Pitt has been visiting the cape since 1972 and owns land in Frisco that provides him and his family a welcome escape from their Richmond, Virginia, home. He's well-versed on the ongoing dispute surrounding ORVs on Cape Hatteras; since April he's written hundreds of members of Congress to try provide an ORVer's viewpoint of the ongoing debate and to question points raised by Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, the two groups who, through the Southern Environmental Law Center, sued the National Park Service for its failure to develop an ORV management plan for the national seashore.
The lawsuit was settled earlier this year when all involved signed a consent decree that was designed to provide short-term management of ORV and pedestrian traffic in shorebird and sea turtle habitat while a long-term plan is developed. Unfortunately, not everyone is thrilled with the consent decree's provisions. Anglers and families that long have used ORVs to reach their favorite spots on the seashore complain that the decree is too restrictive and over-reaching.
What's important for all to remember is not only that ORVs long have been permitted at the national seashore and more than likely will continue to be allowed access in some fashion, but also that there is wildlife habitat on the seashore that needs protection because it is utilized by species protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"I have a vested interest in the area," says Mr Pitt. "It's truly my paradise! Most of the folks who speak out on this issue are fishermen/women. I speak out for beach access for any reason, whether it be fishing, surfing, or just sitting there playing Parcheesi.
" ... I support BOTH species protection AND ORV access, as do most beach users in this area," adds Mr. Pitt. "I truly believe that they can both be attained, if the 'eco' groups will indeed negotiate in good faith."
To some, "ORV" is a pejorative, a word that equates with four-wheelers charging willy-nilly across the landscape. Is that the case at Cape Hatteras, or are the "ORVs" there more likely to be pickup trucks and SUVs their owners use to reach beaches that otherwise would take walks ranging from perhaps a half-mile to nearly 5 miles to reach?
As the attached map shows, there are quite a few ORV and pedestrian restrictions between May 15 and September 15 to protect shorebird and sea turtle nesting habitat. Are those restrictions excessive? There certainly are hard opinions on both sides of that question.
While that question will continue to generate heated comments, let's hope all those involved will arrive at an acceptable solution through the National Park Service's long-term ORV management plan and not insist on a legislated solution from Washington.